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March 24, 2023

TikTok Time in Congress

What you need to know about the social media giant and what’s at stake in hearings and policy.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew gave his public plea to Congress yesterday in an attempt to forestall the forced ban/sale of the company in the U.S. The social media company has come to stand as a symbol for all the ills that social media is bringing to society. TikTok has the additional condition that its parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing, and there are significant indications — including Chew’s admission — that it’s collecting an extraordinary amount of biometric and other spy data for the Chinese Communist Party, as well as having an algorithm that actively seeks to promote images and material that are harmful.

Of course, he also lamely insisted, “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.” Sure thing.

Though TikTok is far from the only social media platform to denigrate society via its toxicity, it is by far the most popular with 150 million users in the U.S. Chew has taken to the app to speak directly to his American users in order to influence lawmakers in favor of the app, but he may already be too late (thank goodness).

TikTok has already been banned on government officials’ devices in many states and by the Biden administration. Why would they do that if there weren’t significant evidence of foreign spyware? Fact is, TikTok is ChiCom spyware.

The Washington Post insists that this forced TikTok ban/sale of the company is based on rumors and that this is a larger geopolitical play for power. That is to say: Who controls the Internet puppet strings? However, WaPo in the same article points out several telling factors that seem to corroborate the suspicions that the app is spyware. In 2018, ByteDance had to change the parameters of another app because it made fun of communism. “Chinese state [forced ByteDance] to close a comedy app that regulators had deemed ‘vulgar and improper,’ the founders said in an apologetic public letter that they’d work to ensure that communist values were ‘broadcast to strength.’”

Another point WaPo makes is that the Trump administration already attempted to put a stop to TikTok in the U.S., demanding the same thing that Congress is pushing now: that the U.S.-based operation of the app be sold to an American company, or the app be banned entirely. What did the CCP say at the time? TikTok was a “strategic asset.”

Chew’s latest attempt at a compromise is what he has dubbed “Project Texas.” It’s a $1.5 billion restructuring plan that would give the U.S. government leverage over operations, data, and the algorithm. Chew is fighting incredibly hard for his company not to be taken from the American market.

Even the promises of altering the algorithms to protect kids is too little, too late for those who care about this issue. Seventy percent of American teens are TikTok users, and they are given access to horrible, shallow, or destructive content that ruins their mental health. In fact, Ekō, a corporate watchdog group, conducted an experiment wherein the users posed as young teens to see if that qualification would affect the algorithm. The “kids” were bombarded with destructive content and suicidality within the first 10 minutes of scrolling down the “For You” page. There is another point to be made here about the responsibility of parents who allow their children to use the app, but that is a rant for another day.

Here is what’s at stake for American lawmakers:

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) represented the bipartisan sentiments of many in Congress when she said last week: “Americans deserve to know the extent to which their privacy is jeopardized and their data is manipulated by ByteDance-owned TikTok’s relationship with China. What’s worse, we know Big Tech companies, like TikTok, use harmful algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous content online. We need to know what actions the company is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms.”

For some lawmakers, a TikTok ban could be the first step in giving them an upper hand on Big Tech censorship, which is a double-edged sword. Conservatives, rightly, have complained that there is too much censorship, while leftists complain there is not enough. This perhaps is the biggest worry when it comes to this motion by Congress. As stated earlier, TikTok is a stand-in for every other social media company like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. As our Mark Alexander wrote five years ago, user data should be protected by more than a vague user agreement:

Congress has the authority to protect consumer privacy through legislation, and in the case of Facebook and other aggregators of private data (which should be classified as private property), that legislation should include explicit requirements regarding the dissemination of consumer data and profiles. When it comes to invasive privacy violations — the collecting and marketing of individual profiles — a ubiquitous blanket “user agreement” is completely insufficient.

Congress should enact legislation requiring that social media and other aggregators of individual data (Facebook, Google, et al.) be required to obtain specific and explicit user permissions for each and every transfer of such data, prior to the sale or transfer of any individually identifiable profiling data.

Then there are those who oppose the ban. Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), member of “The Squad,” claims this ban is “political fearmongering” and reflects “xenophobia around China.” He cannot conceive of how the Chinese could possibly use the information that they’ve gathered to conduct espionage. Another politician, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, also pointed out that TikTok has been a very useful tool for leftist propaganda. Raimondo said that “the politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever” if the ban goes through.

It will be interesting to see what pans out in Congress and the overall actions toward TikTok. Will Congress protect the people of the United States and ban TikTok? Will it enact much-needed reforms in general on data-mining? We wait with bated breath.

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